Desi pseudo intellectualism for dummies

Intellectuals must smoke, be eccentric and angst-ridden, eat at roadside khokhas (to feel 'at one' with the masses) and be able to pontificate at length about nothing.

Maheen Usmani October 15, 2010
Intellectuals are usually considered the conscience of society and the upholders of values and ideals. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, we have an increasing rash of pseudo-intellectuals who are divorced from the realities of life even as they proclaim themselves to be sons of the soil.

Intellectuals hate conformity (or so they constantly claim), but there are certain traits they display which shout “intellectual” even before a word is uttered. Coffee is a must, the blacker the better. Chain smokers gain automatic entry into this rarefied club, but eating at roadside khokhas (in order to feel at one with the masses) and the ability to pontificate at length about nothing in general is vital. Intellectuals like to hang out in packs, propped up outside office walls, smoking circles in the air and regarding others with a quirked eyebrow and a grimace.

In order to gain access to this inner circle, one has to smoke, be eccentric and angst-ridden. Some experience with drugs and mood enhancing substances, as well as a close brush or two with the law, gains one even more respect.

Being a bona fide intellectual calls for a certain look. Fungus is usually passed off as stubble, while black and grey clothes are an essential component of the wardrobe which adds to the air of melancholy and despair. Any ethnic touch like a voluminous shawl, or a Nehru jacket or sandals is welcomed. A jarring ‘phoren’ accent also helps. Female intellectuals should preferably be make up free and dress in a grungy manner in order to cultivate the desired nonchalant, who-gives-a-damn look. An ethnic cloth bag, replete with mirror work and embroidery, carelessly flung over the shoulder, completes the ensemble.

A young pretty girl, propelled by her parental connections, was hired on the spot by an NGO. During her first week at work, she was caked in makeup, adorned in a raw silk shalwar kameez and expensive shawls and wreathed in floral perfume. But by the second week, she was determined to break into the irresistible intellectuals club, so her dress code underwent a seismic shift. Now she sported acne, unkempt hair, shapeless shirts, sloppy jeans, a pained expression, and the ability to smoke endlessly. Naturally within that week, she was ushered into the intellectuals club with great fanfare.

A desi intellectual once loftily proclaimed that “an intellectual is someone who thinks about changing the world.” Indeed, intellectuals are always on the lookout for good causes to espouse, but since they have the attention span of a rabbit, there are no concrete results. Railing against the follies and foibles of the government is part and parcel of their armory. However, in recent years, it has been interesting to see them put up such a spirited defence of the democratic government, notwithstanding its ills, because it is the army who has been cast as the whipping boy now. Exactly how the army is responsible for every misstep of the government is a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it is also true that hell hath no fury like an intellectual challenged on this rosy view.

Naturally, their much-vaunted contempt for the elite does not dampen their enthusiasm for balls, galas or fund raisers, to which they manage to wrangle complimentary passes.

Since they consider themselves to be true patrons of art and culture, one finds them knee-deep at drama festivals, book readings and launches, dance performances, fashion shows, workshops and seminars. At such events, they are not averse to being interviewed by the same media they are so openly derisive of.

Despite the lip service paid to freedom of speech and the right to dissent within NGOs, it is not uncommon for bosses to pick on junior workers or administrators, berating and humiliating them in meetings. At such times, the intellectuals around the table are mute spectators lost in the dregs of their coffee mugs. Of course, after the meeting is over, much indignation is voiced at the boss’s mistreatment of fellow employees.

The ability to exchange bemused looks, curl the lip, scratch the head, look askance, and chuckle superciliously at the perceived frivolities of life are also part and parcel of being an intellectual. References to various philosophers and their theories pepper their conversations, and if you make the cardinal error of asking what on earth they are talking about, you are trapped. “Dude! C’mon! You haven’t heard of ….?!! Really? You have to read his work right now...”

A heavy book is pushed forward and you are the cynosure of all eyes as you try your utmost to look intelligent and grave while reading the hallowed words and waiting for the moment of revelation. It is then that the penny drops. How can you ever be an intellectual when you are unable to go beyond the first chapter?
Maheen Usmani A freelance writer who has covered subjects ranging from socio-political issues to women's rights to counter terrorism, sports, travel, culture and music. Maheen tweets @MaheenUsmani (
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Hayaah | 13 years ago | Reply The interwoven sarcasm through and through was entertaining. The fact that some would be riddled by words in particular, or take the author to task about certain ones that she used, is a whole another kind of amusing. The mystery behind the no one could ever be right, yet so many of us would adamantly think so for them to be so is DOWNRIGHT entertaining alright, if one survives the frustrating part of it, ie...
shadowbandido | 13 years ago | Reply I wonder if it's the lack of any satisfying, modern intellectual ideals that make it such an easy topic for debate? Everything is stereotypical, even the concept of intellectualism. Perhaps it's our desire for a new breed of intellectual, that drives our disgust and contempt for all of it. What we read in books, see in movies, and learn in school, plays a big role in our perception of things. Could not the beggar who passed up a life of conventional existence, for one made up of a simpler truth, be considered an intellectual?
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